The venerable Columbia Journalism Review has long served as self-appointed arbiter of the rules that bind journalists, policing coverage for errors, bias or problems with tone.
For instance, this Best-and-Worst list for 2015 gives praise where it was due (coverage of Bill Cosby; increasingly critical coverage of sports leagues, as opposed to ESPN’s advertorials) and criticism where it was due (Brian Williams; Buzzfeed’s nauseatingly obsequious Obama hagiography). But this leaped out at me, within CJR’s David Uberti’s passage regarding coverage of the year’s various incidents of Islamic terrorism:
“[Coverage] emphasized the religious background of suspects rather than the violent act they committed. The worry is that such reactionary coverage will influence policy makers to take drastic measures under the guise of popular fears.”
From a liberal journalist perspective, this is deeply wrong for two reasons.
One is the implication that news outlets should actually withhold coverage or information because it is deemed politically inappropriate, or as Uberti puts it, “reactionary” and “will influence policy makers” in what the media establishment finds the wrong way.
But isn’t the whole point of news outlets to, well, report the news? And the news will then naturally sway political opinion? If reported honestly, shouldn’t it? Let the opinion page worry about the implications. Let the talking heads on the evening shout shows worry about which way the politicians go. News reporters should report the news — yes, even if they find it personally inconvenient to their own politics, which in the liberal’s case involves apologizing for Islamic terrorism. Not that conservative outlets handle themselves much better.
Would Uberti find it acceptable if such a right-leaning outlet similarly pitted important background and motive information regarding the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shootings, perpetrated as they were by a white male? Or similar background on Dylann Roof? Anders Breivik? Would their motives be irrelevant to the actual “violent act”? How does he feel when a conservative site downplays a white male terrorist act or related gun policy, and talks about “mental illness” in order to not, as he puts it, “influence policy makers to take drastic measures under the guise of popular fears”? And finally, does he really think people will somehow not find out the motives of the San Bernardino shooters if the NY Times doesn’t report it?
I don’t believe Trump has his supporters because the media reports the shooters’ motives. I believe Trump has his supporters because they know the mainstream media tries to downplay the motives of Islamic terrorists, and they resent it.
This brings up a second problem: the reflexive need for the liberal media to downplay Islamic terrorism, and the mirror need for the conservative media to downplay white terrorism. Why is this? Why does Uberti consider the need to shield Islamists from tough questions so closed to debate that it’s already assumed by his media-producing readers? Why do conservative outfits similarly try to cover up a sickness in white gun culture by talking about anything else they can think of? Why can neither side admit BOTH white culture and Sunni Islamic culture have deep-rooted problems with rage and violence? That last sentence would get me fired from both Buzzfeed AND the Weekly Standard!
The same empty, dead-eyed, sociopathic blank stare may be found in photos of both Dylann Roof and Tashfeen Malik. Their causes may differ, but their evil springs from the exact same wretched corner of the human spirit. And yet the CJR considers proper coverage of one, but not the other, a journalistic sin. Apologizing for one form of terror, but not the other, by literally altering or biasing your coverage the other does your readers — and the politicians they vote for — a grave disservice, and betrays the journalistic ideas CJR pretends to uphold.